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Reclaiming the Common Good edited by Virginia Moffatt

02 March 2018

So, exactly how do you define ‘common good’ asks Alan Billings

ALTHOUGH not all 13 writers in this volume are Roman Catholics, the starting-point for their reflections is that Church’s understanding of “the common good”, as set out in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004). From here, they consider some of the most significant issues that face both the nation and the world today, including the future of welfare, mass migration, environmental concerns, and matters of war and peace.

The essayists are a mix of academics, writers, and activists, and several have an association with the think tank Ekklesia. As a result, the book combines theoretical argument with practical illustrations, often based on personal experience.

But, as Patrick Riordan points out in the opening chapter, the concept of the common good has a long history and is not exclusively Christian. The idea, if not the exact term, is found in many works of political philosophy, including Aristotle’s Politics, Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. It was an important idea for those who formulated the American constitution. More recently, John Rawls writes about it in his Theory of Justice, and it can be found in contemporary Islamic discussion about universal values.

Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that there is no agreed definition of “the common good”, and considerable divergence over whether or not the State should promote it.

The contributors to this volume adopt the contemporary Roman Catholic position: the common good is that which can be achieved only by citizens acting collectively, and is something that the State should actively promote. This places them on the political Left. There is no sympathy, for instance, with Smith’s view that the invisible hand of market competition will ensure that, as each individual pursues his or her own economic self-interest, the end result will be greater prosperity for all.

A second narrative also runs through the book and is captured in the title. This is the idea that British citizens were once committed to this understanding of the common good, but have let it slip. The post-war governments of Left and Right forged a political consensus on the basis of it, and this resulted in the creation and then maintenance of the welfare state.

That consensus began to be eroded during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, as the part played by the market, not the State, was emphasised. We live now at a critical moment when we either renew faith in that post-war vision or continue to rely on the market to meet people’s needs, despite the growing evidence of market failures.

Anglicans will be interested to note how often William Temple is referenced in support of this. But, in a thoughtful essay, “A new vision for welfare?”, Simon Duffy points out that Temple also emphasised the importance of “minor communities” — the voluntary and community sector — and not simply the State. If these minor communities are not sustained and promoted, we risk creating passive individuals, not active citizens. The welfare society of the future needs active citizens.

In a final chapter, Simon Woodman, a Baptist, challenges readers to rebuild a broken world by making a recommitment to living for the common good. This is timely, as politics in the liberalised market economy increasingly becomes an exercise in creating institutional structures for the pursuit of sectional self-interest.

Canon Alan Billings is the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire. His latest book is Lost Church: Why we must find it again (SPCK, 2013).


Reclaiming the Common Good: How Christians can help re-build our broken world
Virginia Moffatt, editor
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